In Learning to Speak God from Scratch (Convergent, Sept.), Merritt considers how the meanings of religious words have changed over time.
How did the idea for this book develop?
The book was born when I relocated to New York City from the Bible Belt and encountered an unexpected language barrier: I could no longer “speak God.” As a person of faith and a religion writer who makes a living communicating about sacred realities, this was a startling experience. That sent me on a journey to understand why I—and so many like me—found it difficult to have spiritual conversations.
What do you mean by “speaking God?”
We are experiencing a massive decline in speaking God across America, and this is manifesting in two ways. First, there is a decline in spiritual conversations. I found that, despite widespread religiosity in America, less than 10% of Americans say they have a spiritual or religious conversation once per week. Second, there is a decline in sacred words. We can now map the frequency of certain words and phrases in the English-speaking world. This data reveals a ski-slope decline in religious, moral, and spiritual words stretching back at least 50 years.
What makes words sacred?
All words are signposts pointing to something else. When I call a word sacred, I mean that the word overtly points to moral, spiritual, religious, or metaphysical realities. Both theological words, such as grace and sin, and virtue words, such as joy and kindness, are in decline. We are also less likely to speak communal words and more likely to use individualistic words.
Why do you feel that certain sacred words have been lost or hijacked?
One of the biggest reasons people give for not speaking about God more often is that religious and spiritual words have become overly political. Also, some people say they’ve been hurt by sacred language. When our experience of certain words is associated with being shamed or scolded, it’s not surprising that we might choose to avoid them altogether.
Do the meanings of biblical passages change as words change?
Words have a range of meanings at any given time and each of those meanings is shaded with connotation. Ancient writers such as those who wrote the Bible knew this. They did not use words assuming that there was a single meaning to every word they spoke and largely held an imaginative, not static, understanding of language. Understanding this is the key to understanding why sacred words are vanishing and how we can revive them.